Moving forward, the Vols find themselves with a unique situation that will require a unique individual. In many ways, this is a much more attractive job than it was six years ago: you can win here, and we have new and improved facilities to back it up. Thompson-Boling is an NBA arena for a college team, with attendance over 19,000 on average the last six years. Those are facts no other team with an opening right now can compete with. It's not written on every one of the candidates listed below, but just assume "We have better facilities" is a factor with all of them.
The roster is depleted and could be decimated - we could lose Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris, both incoming freshmen, plus a few underclassmen transfers. But the biggest question for a new coach coming in is, "What will the NCAA do to Tennessee?" If the powers that be had a good enough idea about penalties to make a move on Pearl, hopefully they have a similar idea about what the penalties will be without him, enough so to truthfully express to any candidate that this is still a good job to have right now.
No matter how much we may think we know about what the NCAA will do, their presence and investigation alone means this is not a safe opening. Combine potential penalties with the winning percentage and approval rating of the previous coach, and it's going to take someone who is willing to take a chance to fill this opening. But like with Pearl, the Vols can also offer a serious financial upgrade for several mid-major coaches.
There are a bunch of names floating around out there right now - we've included what we believe to be the fifteen most likely candidates here. We've left out the fantasies (Tom Izzo!) and the insanity (Bring back Buzz Peterson!), but if you feel like there's someone legitimate we missed, leave it in the comments.
Here they are, in alphabetical order:
Tad Boyle, Colorado
The first of several former Tennessee assistants on this list, Boyle was with Jerry Green at Oregon and then followed him to Knoxville for one season. He built a program at Northern Colorado, going 4-24 in his first year in 2007 to 25-8 in 2010. He made the jump to Colorado this year and the Buffaloes went 21-13 (8-8), narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament. His former program made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history this season. Boyle has only been at Colorado one year, so he may not want to move again so quickly, but the Vols could offer him a serious financial upgrade. Colorado is currently still playing in the NIT.
Rick Byrd, Belmont
A Tennessee graduate who has made his living in this state. Byrd was the head coach at Maryville College and LMU before taking the Belmont job way back in 1986. He is obviously comfortable there, and life at Belmont in the Atlantic Sun is very different than life at Tennessee in the SEC. You would question his ability to recruit in a major conference, but you cannot question his coaching ability: Byrd is one of eleven active coaches with more than 600 career wins, and got the Bruins into the dance four times in the last six years. He put a scare into Tennessee twice this year. No idea if he would be interested in leaving at all, especially at age 57, but this man deserves a phone call.
Anthony Grant, Alabama
There have been rumors that Grant is unhappy in Tuscaloosa, though I'm not exactly sure why. Some might consider this a lateral move overall, but again, facilities...plus, if you think the shadow of football makes life hard for the basketball coach at Tennessee, I can't imagine what it does at Alabama. Bruce Pearl just proved you can win big and be supported at this football school. Remember too, Grant was at VCU for three years where he won at least 24 games every year and made two NCAA Tournaments, in 2007 (beating Duke in the first round) and 2009. The success you see their program have right now was built on his shoulders. We all know what Alabama did this year, which was especially impressive because Grant kept them together when it looked like their season was over in the non-conference. Grant was an assistant under Billy Donovan for ten years at Florida before taking the VCU job, which means he has a ton of SEC experience at age 44. Alabama is currently still playing in the NIT.
Lawrence Frank, Boston Celtics assistant
Frank was an assistant coach under Kevin O'Neill at Tennessee during all three years of O'Neill's tenure. When O'Neill went to Northwestern, Frank went to the NBA, where he has stayed since 1997. He eventually became the head coach of the New Jersey Nets, where he served from January 2004-November 2009 (fired during his team's 0-16 start to the season). When Tom Thibodeau left the Celtics to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Doc Rivers hired Frank to fill the lead assistant role. Frank is an NBA guy, which could certainly help in recruiting, though he hasn't recruited anyone in more than a decade. This would also mean you wouldn't get him cheap. Doc Rivers' status is also a factor - if Rivers decides he wants to retire, as he has hinted for years, Frank will at least deserve a look as the Celtics' new head coach, which is one job I can happily say is better than ours.
Kerry Keating, Santa Clara
Another former UT assistant, Keating came in with Buzz Peterson and stayed here two years, before moving on to be an assistant coach at UCLA. He's been on the west coast ever since, becoming the head coach at Santa Clara in 2007. Steve Nash's alma mater returned to postseason play in Keating's fourth season this year, as they are still alive in the CIT Quarterfinals after a 19-14 season in the West Coast Conference (home to Gonzaga and St. Mary's).
Rob Jeter, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Just in case Mike Hamilton wants to go back to familiar territory. Jeter was an assistant at Wisconsin until Bruce Pearl took the Tennessee job; Jeter got back to the NCAA Tournament in his first year with the Panthers but hasn't been back since. However, he has gotten them back on the right track after losing seasons in his second and third year (which shows you the value Pearl had up there) - UWM made it to the NIT this year, their first postseason appearance of any kind since 2006.
Chris Mack, Xavier
The latest in a long line of successful Xavier Basketball coaches (Sean Miller, Thad Matta, Skip Prosser, Pete Gillen), Mack has been at the helm for two years and has three NCAA Tournament wins, continuing Xavier's successful run out of the Atlantic 10, which they've won four years in a row. Mack is only 41, but Xavier may be his dream job - not only did he play there, but all of his coaching experience is at Xavier, with the exception of three years at Wake Forest when Skip Prosser went there. With Tennessee not being a safe destination right now, it's guys like this I wonder if we'll be able to get.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Marshall is a mid-major lifer, with no coaching experience in a major conference. He was at Winthrop for nine years, making the NCAA Tournament seven of them (and putting a scare into the Vols in 2006). After struggling at Wichita his first two years, he's gotten the Shockers back in business the last two: 25-10 last year, 25-8 this year with a pair of NIT appearances. Wichita State is currently still playing in the NIT.
Cuonzo Martin, Missouri State
Another young gun, the 39 year old Martin was an eight year assistant at Purdue before taking the job at Missouri State in 2008. After going 11-20 in his first year, Martin went 24-12 (only 8-10 in conference) and won the CIT last year, and went 26-8 (15-3) this year, with a loss in the Missouri Valley Tournament costing them an NCAA Tournament appearance. They were just bounced by Miami in the second round of the NIT.
Chris Mooney, Richmond
(Hold your Dave Clawson jokes, please.) Staying with the youth movement, the 38 year old Mooney spent one season at Air Force, where he led the Falcons to an 18-12 record, second best in school history. He then took the job at Richmond six years ago. In the last three years, Richmond has won 20+ games and made two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. They beat Vanderbilt and Morehead State, and are currently in the Sweet 16.
Shaka Smart, VCU
They keep getting younger - Smart is only 33. He was an assistant at Akron for three years, then Clemson for two, then spent a year on Billy Donovan's staff in 08-09, before replacing Anthony Grant at VCU. Some of his success at VCU gets a nod to Grant, but Smart's teams have gone 27-9 and won the CBI Tournament, and 26-11, winners of three straight blowouts to make the Sweet 16. If you liked Bruce Pearl's controlled chaos, you'll like Smart. He also lives up to his last name, with an impressive graduate school resume before he got into to the coaching ranks. VCU plays 10 seed Florida State in the Sweet 16, which means they're at least an even bet to make the Elite Eight. Smart is going to be considered the best candidate on the board by many schools, which raises the question: is Tennessee the best available job over Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia Tech, and NC State?
Tubby Smith, Minnesota
Tubby will turn 60 this summer, so you have to wonder how long you'd have him around. He's also coming off his worst year at Minnesota, 17-12 and 6-12 in Big Whatever play. He made the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and 2010, but hasn't won a postseason game of any kind since leaving Kentucky. At UK, Tubby won an NCAA Championship in his first season in 1998 (as the UK fans scream, "With Pitino's players!") after leaving Georgia to take the job. He made the dance in each of his ten seasons in the bluegrass, winning five SEC Championships along the way. He also made six Sweet 16s and four Elite Eights, though he failed to make it out of the first weekend his last two years, and left Kentucky with a divided fanbase. I have great respect for Tubby Smith, and if you're looking to keep the spice in our relationship with our friends to the north, this is certainly one way to do it.
Brad Stevens, Butler
Look, everybody wants him, but this guy can pick his job and I'm just not sure you pick this one right now. Stevens, of course, made the Final Four last year and was a rim-out on a halfcourt heave away from being a National Champion. Most recently, Butler beat 1 seed Pitt and is still playing in the Sweet 16. He's 34 and has been at Butler as an assistant or the head man his entire career. Even if you think Tennessee is the best available job right now, there are certainly more attractive positions in college basketball that could open up next year, and he can afford to wait. Some believe he's simply waiting out Tom Crean at Indiana. I'd love to have Stevens, I just think he's a long shot.
Mark Turgeon, Texas A&M
Turgeon beat the Vols as the head coach at Wichita State in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, and also served as an assistant coach under Jerry Green at Oregon. After seven years with Wichita, Turgeon took the Texas A&M job when Billy Gillispie went to Kentucky. In four years at A&M, Turgeon has won either 24 or 25 games every season, with four straight NCAA Tournament appearances but no Sweet 16s. Is it easier to win in the SEC than the Big 12? Turgeon is 46 and certainly appears to have a good thing going at A&M - not sure he would be interested, but worth a call.
Buzz Williams, Marquette
Williams is considered by many to be the heavy favorite for the opening at Oklahoma. In the rugged Big East (regular season edition), Williams has guided Marquette to three straight NCAA Tournaments by winning at least 22 games in each of his three seasons. And they're still alive in the dance right now. Williams is 38, but is from midwest, where he's spent all of his coaching career before going to Marquette (is Milwaukee the midwest?). But if you're looking to make life easier on yourself than the nightly Big East grind, Tennessee could do so. The Vols hired Kevin O'Neill from Marquette in 1994.
So...who ya got?